By Peter Griffiths
LONDON (Reuters) - The phone hacking scandal that engulfed Rupert Murdoch's media empire could turn out to be Britain's "Watergate" with fallout that lasts for decades, former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein said on Thursday.
The American journalist, who helped win his newspaper a Pulitzer Prize for his work on the 1970s crisis that brought down U.S. President Richard Nixon, said there were "striking" parallels between the two cases.
They both involved allegations of corruption at the highest levels and have fueled the public's loss of trust in national institutions, particularly the government, he said.
"The parallels are really striking. Both are shattering cultural moments of huge consequence that are going to be with us for generations," he told a debate in London organized by the Guardian newspaper.
Bernstein said he had always resisted the temptation to compare other important events to the Watergate scandal since he reported on the 1972 burglaries at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington.
"But this is for real and the parallels are remarkable," he added. "It is about a sensibility that corrupted a free institution and the consequences of that are so far-reaching."
News Corp has been rocked by the scandal since July when it was revealed that people employed by one of its British newspapers had hacked into the mobile phone messages of murder victims as well as celebrities and politicians.
The events have exposed awkward links between the media and senior politicians and police. British Prime Minister David Cameron has spoken of the need for a new relationship between politicians and media owners and the country's most senior policeman has resigned.
However, while Nixon became the first serving U.S. president to resign and a number of his officials were prosecuted, Cameron has so far emerged largely unscathed from the crisis.
The Conservative leader has been criticized for hiring a former Murdoch newspaper editor as his media chief, but Cameron has apologized for that decision and has rejected suggestions that his judgment is flawed.
Bernstein said the hacking scandal had damaged the reputation of Britain's politicians, regulators and media. The same pattern has been repeated in other countries, although often for different reasons.
"Our institutions have lost the trust of the people," he said.
"If there is a single thing going on today, from the Middle East to New York to Greece, Britain, all over the world, it's a loss of trust in our institutions."
(Editing by Michael Roddy)